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Workshop 3: ‘Music and Noise’, Science Museum, London, 23–24 April

The final workshop in the series asked if, categorically, the opposite of music is said to be noise, then in what ways has the boundary between music and noise been negotiated? This workshop began at Blythe House, the Museum’s storage facility in West London, with a guided tour of the Sound Reproduction and the Acoustics collections led by John Liffen, Curator of Communications and Acoustics. Liffen also assembled a selection of the Museum’s artefacts for the afternoon’s provocation by historian of science Myles Jackson, author of Harmonious Triads: Physicists, Musicians, and Instrument Makers in Nineteenth-Century Germany (2006), who invited us to think about the history of late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century acoustics through the selection of objects laid out before him. Just as the workshop’s aim was to problematise the boundary between music and noise, Jackson’s talk problematised the boundary between scientific and musical instruments. Musical instruments provided experimental natural philosophers, physicists and physiologists with a rich choice of natural phenomena needing explanation, such as combination tones, beats, resonance, vibrations and wave patterns. Using objects from this rich collection, Jackson surveyed the work of many researchers in this liminal region, beginning with the founder of experimental acoustics, Ernst Chladni, whose ‘Chladni Figures’ – patterns formed by grains of sand on a metal plate made to resonate with a bow – are among the earliest visualisations of sound. By describing work such as Thomas Young and Hermann Helmholtz’s piano-mediated research on tuning systems and combination tones, Helmholtz and Hermann Koenig’s dispute over the nature of combination tones (Pantalony, 2009, p 133) and the early sound-based experiments[15] that informed Charles Wheatstone’s important contribution to the development of electrical telegraphy, Jackson argued for the inextricable relationship between scientific and musical experimentation. Using scientific instruments such as the tuning fork and the siren, physicists began to reconceptualise the notion of hearing and of sound. Returning to the siren, Jackson ended his provocation with a discussion of how the boundary between scientific and musical instruments became blurred during the twentieth century. For example, Edgard Varèse’s piece Ionisation (1929–31) was inspired by science in its use of sirens – not to evoke a factory, police or alarm sound but in order to create glissandi effects and liberate the sound from pitch relationships. Varèse believed that composers must work with scientists and electrical engineers to produce new sounds and he foresaw that physics and electricity would create a new musical aesthetic. In conclusion, Jackson argued, just as music and noise are historically contingent categories that would be redefined throughout the late eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, similarly the boundary between musical and scientific instruments becomes blurred during this period.

As part of this third workshop an evening concert of new works responding to the theme of ‘Music and Noise’ was performed at the Science Museum by three of the workshop participants. Aleks Kolkowski’s Sounding a Victorian Future (2012–2015) presented his own recordings of working machines in the Science Museum collection, including the reconstructed Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, the Toyoda loom and the giant Burnley Mill engine.[16] The recordings were transferred onto wax cylinders and reproduced mechanically on early twentieth-century Edison cylinder phonographs with giant brass concert horns,[17] effectively ‘ageing’ the sound, as if the audience were hearing recordings of machines made in the distant past. Sean Williams presented an improvised performance derived from Gottfried Michael Koenig’s Funktionen (1967−79),[18] on modular analogue synthesiser. The evening concluded with Sarah Angliss and Caroline Radcliffe’s mixed-media performance work, The Machinery, which combined recordings of machines, electronic music and video projection with live ‘machine-mimetic dance from the early nineteenth century’ (that is, Lancashire clog dancing) performed by Radcliffe.[19] Devised by women working in the Lancashire mills, the steps of this nineteenth-century ‘heel and toe’ clog dance directly mimic the repetitive sounds and movements of cotton mill machines. As well as the sounds of the mill, the piece used those of a modern call centre, juxtaposing the sounds of industrial manufacturing factory work with those of the modern-day service sector.[20]

The second day of the workshop began with a hardware hacking session led by Tom Richards; a practical activity in which the participants assembled their own, functioning, light-sensitive Theremins, guided by Richards’ easy-to-follow instructions. The session ended in a spontaneous improvisation session by an ensemble of the newly created instruments. Reaction to the activity was overwhelmingly positive, with the obvious implication that activities of this type would be a valuable addition to a sound-focused exhibition. This tactile, listenable activity contrasted with the silenced objects on show during Myles Jackson’s presentation the previous afternoon, raising the question of how this disjunction could be addressed in an exhibition context – perhaps by using recordings of the objects on display or digitally modelled versions of them. However, it was felt that the difference between hearing an actual object sounding in space and listening to a recording of it is potentially so great that live demonstrations of certain artefacts, or working replicas of them, would be more effective in an exhibition on sound.

DIY electronics and hardware hacking (the practice of physically modifying pre-existing electronic hardware) has played a significant role in electronic music production in the twentieth century through to today. In his provocation, Trevor Pinch drew from his own experiences as a musician and builder of a modular synthesiser to examine the appeal of unpredictable and malfunctioning instruments of electronic music-making that are the wilful result of a practice known as circuit-bending. Coined by composer Reed Ghazala, the term derives from the bending of wires that link components within an electronic circuit (Ghazala, 2005, p 3). Circuit-benders typically take existing, battery-operated electronic devices and toys that produce sound, and modify their circuits by adding new wire connections to change the sound produced. Mass-produced electronic toys such as the ‘Speak & Spell’ and the ‘Furby’ have become classic tools of circuit-benders, allowing for exploration and experimentation with electronic hardware at very low cost, low risk, and without requiring any previous knowledge of electronics.[21] This tactile approach to creating sounds and instruments is an important factor in the appeal of circuit-bending, as is the element of chance and unpredictability. The instability of the instrument and potential for producing unexpected results is considered important, especially when improvising. The circuit-bent device has an agency of its own, producing a glossolalia of electronic sounds almost unaided and in complete contrast to how it originally sounded as a commercially manufactured toy. The circuit-bender’s ‘tactile understanding’ of technology, which doesn’t require knowledge of electronic schematics, enables them to take control of the technology. In a museum context, this would make circuit-bending an ideal learning activity, where visitors can engage in a tactile manner with the technology and at the same time gain an understanding of how electronically produced sound works.

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a speak and spell childrens toy that has been modified to create music

'Speak & Spell' children's toy that has been circuit bent

A DIY aesthetic was also very much present in industrial music’s early period. Alexei Monroe, in his provocation ‘A Violent Absence: Re-Industrialising the History of Noise in Music’, stressed that no accurate narrative of the history of noise in twentieth-century music is complete without discussing the role of noise in Industrial and Techno music. Industrial music has a troubled image and Monroe began by contrasting the critical acceptance of the Italian futurist movement (despite its affinity with Italian fascism and vehement glorification of militarism) with what he sees as the ostracising of Industrial music by academics and music journalists because of its politically contentious and ambiguous nature. Where Futurism celebrated noise as a tool for anarchy and revolution (Harrison, Charles, and Paul Wood, 2002, pp 146–149), Industrial music uses noise itself as power. It does this through visceral, amped-up loudness as well as symbolic visual representations of power, for and against ruling systems and even against audiences. Modern industrial music, Monroe argues, is a complex, contradictory mix of ambivalence, ambiguity, confrontation and social tension that was fomented during the 1970s – a period of rapid de-industrialisation, social unrest and upheaval in Europe and the USA. Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle, two British groups from this period, were highly influential and made innovative use of noise and distortion, using self-built devices, synthesisers and electronic effects in their music. Throbbing Gristle’s record label, Industrial Records, founded in in 1976, gave name to the new genre of Industrial music, strongly associated with dystopia, alienation and political and moral ambivalence. Monroe also sees the experimental electronic music of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop as a direct influence upon the Industrial music of the 1970s and ‘80s, citing the incidental music created by Malcolm Clarke for ‘The Sea Devils’ (1972) – an episode from the BBC television series Doctor Who.[22] For much of the general public, these television soundtracks were their first exposure to abstract electronic music outside the popular music realm and they inspired and influenced a generation of musicians.

Industrial music’s tendency to dehumanise both musician and listener may be seen as a reaction to the personality-driven and virtuosic rock music of the period. This tendency was amplified, according to Monroe, as Industrial music influenced the advent of Techno in Detroit during the 1990s. Industrial music continues its relevance within the political sphere today, an example being the Industrial band Skinny Puppy’s ongoing lawsuit against the United States government, who used the band’s music as a sonic weapon of torture at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.[23]

The discussion following Monroe’s provocation considered other music and art forms that have arisen from the industrial context but were created by workers, such as singing in the workplace and clog dancing, contrasting these with the brutalist noise aesthetic of Industrial music created by artists. It was suggested that in our post-industrial society, modern Industrial music seems oddly nostalgic. The problem of how best to represent Industrial music and its radicalism within a museum context was pondered; it would be essential to provide ample video footage and visual material even to gesture to the controversial nature of the genre. Specific objects that could be exhibited include the ‘Gristleizer’ effects machine, used by Throbbing Gristle for making pounding echo effects;[24] Synthi AKS and Korg MS20 synthesisers; the E-MU Emulator 2 sampling keyboard as well as metallic ‘junk percussion’ instruments.

Sarah Angliss, in her provocation, moved away from the music-science relationship to the ‘emotional contagion’ that binds musician and audience. Angliss expressed curiosity regarding deeply committed emotional reactions to listening, and the sacrifices listeners are prepared to make for the experience – the experience of temporary tinnitus, or ‘ringing in the ears’ after a loud concert, for example, which she likened to visiting an art exhibition because one wishes to see a lot of the colour red, whilst knowing one will be ‘red blind’ for a few days afterwards. Further exploring these emotional connections to music, Angliss wondered why so-called ‘audiophiles’ continue to strive for perfect sound fidelity, despite the scientific ‘proof’ that such perfection is impossible. Here Angliss referenced sociologist Marc Perlman’s division of audiophiles into two major groups: ‘golden ears’, who believe the exceptional precision of their own hearing abilities can distinguish qualities in recordings undetectable by either ‘normal’ listeners or by technology, and ‘meter readers’, who stand by the reports and measurements of high-quality audio technology (Perlman, 2004). Angliss responded to a question about the sense of spectacle in live noise music and how this relates to emotional contagion, by mentioning the importance of visual cues and gestures made by performers that are synchronised with the performed sound as a cause of, or ‘cue for’, emotional contagion. The relationship between the desire to listen to extreme volume (noise music fans) and extreme silence (audiophiles) was also clarified as a matter of signal-to-noise ratio rather than simply of the workshop’s governing categories of noise and silence.[25]

The ratio of signal-to-noise was purposefully low in an unusual provocation/performance by composer Luciano Chessa. Chessa combined live readings with pre-recorded speech, digital noise and a megaphone to present a metaphysical investigation of Luigi Nono’s teleological musical form within the ending of his oft-performed composition La lontananza nostalgica, utopica, futura (1988–89).[26] With much of the content of the talk obscured by either loud noise or the confusion of two voices speaking different texts simultaneously, Chessa created a tension between an explanation of purpose and that explanation’s inability to be comprehended, leading to an uncertainty in the audience about what they should be hearing from the performance.

How do we qualify noise of a different order? Sally-Jane Norman, in her workshop summation, pondered this question while discussing the European Space Agency’s 2001 artist residency programme.[27] This a group of artists turned a radio telescope into a musical instrument, with the collected data from the transmissions being held in an open-source archive for others to study and remix.[28] In thinking about crafting an exhibition for the Science Museum, Norman suggested we think about the things we are currently training ourselves to listen to. She suggested we think about the physicist and philosopher Karen Barad’s post-humanist notion of intra-actions, which reverses contemporary opinions about causality and rethinks our relationship with objects, enacting boundaries of tuning and hearing in entirely different ways (Barad, 2003). Norman also discussed François Delalande’s reflections on different modes of listening, including empathic listening, which is ‘entirely oriented towards sensations produced and not towards what causes them’ (Delalande, 1998, p 46) and figurativist listening, where sound is interpreted as narrative or as metaphors, and where the listener ‘tends to think that certain sounds evoke something that moves, ultimately living’ (Ibid, p 47). In an exhibition context, would the Science Museum prefer to craft something empathic, where visitors feel a sense of connection with the objects they are listening to, or employ exhibition strategies focused purely on narratives and taxonomies? Perhaps a Science Museum exhibition on sound should focus on counterpoint between these two approaches, Norman argued, embracing its soundscape’s own sharawadji – its unexplainable beauty through complexity (Augoyard, et al (eds), 2006).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170814/004